Negotiating teams for the Clinton and Dole campaigns are set to open discussions on what are likely to be the last, most important events in the race for the White House: the debates.
The maneuvering leading up to the debate is tricky. The two sides will seek agreement on the format, number, and dates of the contests. As they hash out these details, each will be looking for tactical clues about its opponent. So far, four debates - three presidential and one vice-presidential - are tentatively slated to begin later this month.
The most important variable, however, is whether to include Ross Perot, a decision that is not entirely up to the two major campaigns. Four years ago, the Bush and Clinton camps agreed to let the wealthy Texan debate, each side calculating that Mr. Perot would help their cause. But this time the Dole campaign is reluctant to risk splitting the anti-Clinton vote.
Ultimately, the decision to include Perot rests with the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which is expected to announce a ruling as early as Monday. In the intervening days, the commission must determine whether Perot and his new running mate, the former Commerce Department economist Pat Choate, have a realistic chance of winning in November.
"It is hard to predict the dynamics surrounding the debates," says Harold Ickes, deputy director of the Clinton campaign. "In 1992, the two campaigns hammered out agreements. But this is a tricky, three-way discussion."
The simplified wisdom of presidential debates is that challengers like them and incumbents don't, especially when the challenger is as far behind as is Mr. Dole. Debates provide a crucial national audience. The last round in 1992, for example, tapped a record 97 million viewers.
But each presidential debate takes place against a backdrop of variables, such as the on-camera persona of the candidates, who's ahead or behind in the polls, and domestic and foreign conditions.
And debates today take place in a markedly different campaign environment than even those held 16 years ago.
As the Republican and Democratic Parties have stripped their quadrennial conventions of substantive policy discussions, the fall debates have become a vital arena where voters can watch candidates battle over the issues. This is especially true this year, when both President Clinton and Dole are relatively well-known. Many voters, for example, already know that both candidates promise to balance the budget. The debates will bring out the details of differing approaches.
Modern debates, meanwhile, no longer are events unto themselves. An accord was reached yesterday in which the major networks agreed to give free TV time to the candidates. This may mean voters know more about the candidates before the debates begin.
"Debates are part of the broad communications strategies of the candidates and are tightly coordinated with advertising," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "These are people who are well-known. Dole reflects his party, so people know him. The focus will be on the fine points: Medicare, school vouchers, military build-up, and abortion."
A question mark for the Clinton campaign going into the negotiations is Dole's ability as a debater. On the campaign trail, Dole is as laconic as Clinton is loquacious. He speaks in staccato cadences, often without verbs. Debates have been Dole's undoing in the past; as President Ford's running mate in 1976, Dole carped about "Democrat wars" in a contest against Walter Mondale.
But the Clinton team is wary. Dole, after all, spent 27 years in the US Senate, where windy oratory is almost a constitutional requirement. The formats used in presidential debates, meanwhile, favor short, controlled answers. And Dole's reputation may give him an advantage: Expectations for his performance are lower than for Clinton's, and thus easier to exceed.
"You can't weight these things beforehand," Mr. Ickes says, who was part of the Carter team in 1980. "We planned to demonize Ronald Reagan, but he won the electorate when he walked out on stage in the first debate and shook Carter's hand with a big smile on his face. It was a breathtaking performance."
In the next few days, the debate commission will settle the crucial question of Perot's participation. Candidates must meet specific criteria. They must have a "mathematical chance" to win, meaning the potential to capture the needed 270 electoral votes; they must be eligible for public campaign funds; and they must be attracting significant national media attention.
Perot is on the ballot in 43 states so far, and has received $30 million from the Federal Electoral Commission. But there are serious doubts about his viability. Polls put him at roughly 5 percent. That's only a point or two below his standing at this time four years ago, but there is an important difference. He was unknown in 1992. Polls this year reflect an informed opinion.
If Dole and Clinton agree to the tentative schedule, the debates will stretch over four consecutive Wednesdays, with the first on Sept. 25 in St. Louis. A vice presidential debate between Al Gore and Jack Kemp would follow on Oct. 2, with two more presidential matches on Oct. 9 in Florida and Oct. 16 in California.